SMASHING PUMPKINS – GISH
Released May 28, 1991 – 25 years ago
The Smashing Pumpkins debut initially met with only minor commercial success, but grew to be very influential album. Arriving several months before Nirvana’s Nevermind, it was one of the first shots in the 90s alternative revolution, helping establish the grunge movement, and shaped the rock and roll landscape for well over a decade.
The Classic Pick is a weekly feature at 4 p.m. Monday-Friday on The Home Stretch, sponsored by the Good Oak Bar and curated by Kris Kerry. Each Monday at 4 p.m. Kris stops by KXCI’s studio to give us insight on this classic album at 91.3FM and kxci.org.
The Smashing Pumpkins were formed in Chicago in 1988 by front man Billy Corgan (vocals, guitar) and James Iha (lead guitar). The two met at a record store where they both worked. While the band underwent many line-up changes over the years, the band’s early line-up (and some would argue their best) also included D’arcy Wretzky (bass), who was in a relationship with Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums).
With their densely layered, guitar-heavy elements, the Smashing Pumpkins, unlike many of their early alt-rock contemporaries, drew less from punk and were much more influenced of hard rock, dream pop, psych rock, and shoegaze.
The Smashing Pumpkins first recording was on a local Chicago band compilation released in 1989. Soon there after, they released the single, “I Am One,” in 1990 on the small Chicago label Limited Potential. This single sold out fast and Sub-Pop released their follow up single, “Tristessa,” that same year. Sub-pop however failed to sign the Smashing Pumpkins and they soon inked a one record deal with Caroline Records, then a subsidiary of Virgin.
Gish was recorded on a budget of $20,000 from December 1990-March 1991 at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. Founded by producers Butch Vig and Steve Marker in 1983, the studio initially recorded only local and regional acts, however after Gish, it saw the recording of Nirvana’s Nevermind (immediately following the recording of Gish), L7’s Bricks Are Heavy (1992), as well as albums by Soul Asylum, Archers of Loaf, Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse, Jimmy Eat World, and Tegan & Sara. The studio became the focus of Vig and Marker’s own band, Garbage, throughout much of the late 90s. It closed in 2010.
Butch Vig and Billy Corgan share producer credit on Gish. The longer recording period and a relatively modest budget of $20,000 were unprecedented for the both of them as they were used to working on smaller projects with much less money. Corgan was a perfectionist and wanted to make everything sound lush and textured, urging Vig to spend a significant amount of time on the recording which had come to mimic more epic production styles reminiscent of famously orchestrated bands like ELO and Queen, rather than a small, indie band. While many smaller bands at the time were using drum sampling and processing, Gish featured unprocessed drum recordings, and Vig and Corgan spent days perfecting guitar tones and feedback.
In addition to writing and arranging nearly the whole album, Corgan insisted in performing nearly all the guitar and bass parts during the album’s recording. This caused a lot of stress in the band and on Corgan himself, who said the album’s recording caused him a nervous breakdown.
In addition to Gish, Nevermind, and Bricks Are Heavy, Vig also produced some other monster records from the 1990s, including the Smashing Pumpkins follow up release, Siamese Dream (1993), Sonic Youth’s Dirty (1992), and releases by TAD, Chainsaw Kittens, Gumball, Helmet, Soul Asylum, and Garbage.
Gish only met with modest commercial success initially, spending only one week on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 195. However, the album reached number one the CMJ college radio chart. The album was not certified Gold until after the success of their sophomore release, Siamese Dream, and did not receive a Platinum certification until 1999.
Critically, Gish was well received from the outset, and set them up for the mega-success the received with the subsequent releases, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995). Nearly ever “best of” list from 1991 included the album.
Gish was named after silent film icon Lillian Gish. In an interview, Corgan said, “My grandmother used to tell me that one of the biggest things that ever happened was when Lillian Gish rode through town on a train… my grandmother lived in the middle of nowhere, so that was a big deal.”
With the release of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), the band broke into the musical main stream, which led to topping the Billboard charts and selling over 20 million albums in the US alone. Indeed, the Smashing Pumpkins became one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed alternative bands of the 1990s.
Infighting, drug use, and diminishing record sales led to a break up in 2000. However in 2006, Corgoan and Chamberlin reconvened to record a new Smashing Pumpkins album with rhythm guitarist Jeff Schroeder. Since then, they have released two additional albums all without James Iha or D’arcy Wretzky.